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Congress Holds Hearing on NFL Retired Player Pensions and Disability Benefits
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Long after statements had been read and testimonies heard, and the question and answer portion had begun, it was former Chicago Bears head coach Mike Ditka who cut to the chase with a forceful and impassioned plea.
“Let’s cut through the red tape and the bureaucracy. If they are in trouble, we need to take care of them. Give them a check, then we can worry about filling out a bunch of forms. There’s right and there’s wrong, and helping these players is the right thing to do,” Ditka said in a stirring response to questioning by the committee.
The setting was Capitol Hill, the occasion was a subcommittee hearing on Commercial and Administrative Law, and the topic was the NFL system for compensating retired players.
The congressional hearing, held on Tuesday, opened with a four-person panel who explained the process by which the NFL out retirement and disability benefits to retired players. The second panel, composed of four retired players, including Ditka, read statements detailing the struggles of retired players and the inadequacy of the current system.
“It’s high time to expose the corruption of the NFL Disability Board. I am here to illustrate for you how the NFL disability process is corrupted. I’m sure if I can walk you through my experience, you will get a feel for the travesty that has befallen countless other disabled players,” said Brent Boyd, who played for the Minnesota Vikings.
Boyd began his testimony by asking indulgence for the strict time rules set for the hearing, explaining that he suffers from brain damage. Boyd was diagnosed with post concussion syndrome, and described the medical and financial distress in his life since his retirement.
During periods of his life, Boyd was homeless, and was helped by MLB players Mark Grace, Rick Sutcliffe and Jeff Bagwell, and former NBA star Bill Walton, and Walton’s brother Bruce, who is a former NFL player, all while claiming he was being denied benefits by the NFL.
“The NFL is desperately fighting to avoid any liability for all the carnage left behind by concussions. They need to be held accountable,” Boyd said of the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA).
Boyd currently receives the minimum, non-football related disability from the NFL, and still suffers from depression, headaches, fatigue and dizziness. His statement was followed by Ditka, who provided the most emotional testimony of the day.
“All we’re here for is to see that the system gets fixed. The system does not work,” said Ditka, a former player and coach for the Chicago Bears who currently works as a broadcaster.
“The reality is if you make people fill out enough forms, you discourage them enough, you make them jump through hoops, eventually they will say, I don’t need this, I can’t do all this. This is ridiculous,” Ditka said.
“These are proud people. They are as much a part of this game as people playing today. Hopefully these players today understand that the treatment former players are getting could come to them, regardless of what they’re making,” Ditka said.
Ditka oversees the Mike Ditka Hall of Fame Assistance Trust Fund, which was created in 2004 to help retired players with acute medical and financial needs. Ditka’s organization works in conjunction with the Gridiron Greats Assistance Trust Funds, which also assists retired players.
Further testimony on the plight of the retired players was highlighted by the panel’s other two former players, Harry Carson, who played 13 years for the N.Y. Giants, and Curt Marsh, who played for seven years with the Oakland Raiders.
Carson has also been diagnosed with post concussion syndrome. Marsh had to have his right ankle amputated and both hips replaced.
“I ignorantly laughed when I saw guys get hit so hard they didn’t know where they were. But those hard hits I gave affected me just as equally,” Carson said. He called it an honor to speak for others players who do not have a voice.
“What people don’t understand is that an NFL doctor is different from a regular doctor. A regular doctor is committed to making a person well. An NFL doctor’s only job is to make a player well enough to play,” Marsh said.
The former Raider endured 31 surgeries and spent more than a year and a half in trying to obtain NFL disability benefits. “ The medical treatment in the past is far inferior than it is today. It’s easy for people today to forget the suffering of the trailblazers of the past,” Marsh said.
Marsh was a former teammate of Gene Upshaw, Director of the NFLPA. Upshaw was conspicuously absent from the hearing, but the NFL Pension plan was represented by Dennis Curran of the NFL, Douglass Ell, counsel for the players retirement plan, and attorney Martha Jo Wagner. Cyril Smith, an attorney from Baltimore, represented the family of the late Mike Webster, who played for the Steelers and died in 2002.
“These hearings are a warning bell and a loud one. This system needs repair,” Smith said. Smith’s recommendations included a shorter deadline for filing claims, deference to the opinions of independent physicians, and the use of independent arbitrators on disability claims.
As currently constructed, there are no retired players or independent medical personnel involved in the claim decision process. The board is comprised of current players and NFL personnel.
Curran’s assertion that the current members of the board could adequately represent the retired players, even though they were no retired players on the board drew a clear response of skepticism from the committee.
“The NFL is proud of the wide variety of post-career benefits available to our players. Players with as little as three years of service are guaranteed benefits for the rest of their lives,” Curran said.
According to Curran and Ell, the NFL retirement plan distributed more than $55 million in pensions to former players, and $20 million in disability payments.
“Much of what has been said and written recently is wrong,” Ell said. “Pension and disability benefits have not been refused. Anyone who played more than three seasons is entitled to benefits. As pensions increased, it was the retired players who got the largest share,” Ell said.
Ell estimated that there are currently 317 retired NFL players who are currently collecting disability benefits. Committee Chair Linda Sanchez said that a response to the hearings would come within five days.
“Today’s hearings provide Congress the opportunity to consider the complex process that must be navigated in order to obtain disability benefits, specifically if the process can be improved or streamlined,” Sanchez said.
But perhaps only someone with the no-nonsense reputation of Mike Ditka could put the sometimes cumbersome process of Congress, insurance plans and bureaucratic red tape at all levels into perspective.
“Laws are laws and we understand that. But it’s time for some solutions. It’s time for some action. I’m not asking on my behalf. I’m asking on behalf of people who need help. God forbid any of these people doing these tactics would be in the position where they would need this kind of help”, Ditka said.
“We would hope that these people would have some compassion and some understanding. The money is there. The resources are there. Why can’t this be taken care of?”